Faulty power lines ignited the Camp fire on November 8, 2018, but high winds, drought-dried foliage, and an unreliable warning system all caused the inferno to erupt into California’s deadliest wildfire. Eighty-five civilians died, 13,900 houses burned, and nearly all residents of Paradise, a town in California’s Butte County, lost their homes. Between 2018 and 2019, county homelessness increased by 16 percent.

No U.S. wildfire since has reaped such a death toll, but the incineration of entire communities continued this past fall in Oregon, California, and Washington. Given the similarities between those towns and some in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, where homes abut dry forests thick with foliage, experts say the Centennial State could be next. “There’s every reason to believe that in the next five years, a town in Colorado will be wiped off the map,” says Dave Lasky, director of fire management with the nonprofit Forest Stewards Guild. When that fire comes, Lasky fears the most vulnerable will face the steepest road to recovery.

Already, the Colorado mountain communities most susceptible to wildfires face affordable housing challenges. In the Vail Valley, 80 percent of employers told the Vail Daily they struggle to hire workers because few make enough to live in town. If the limited cost-effective housing options there burn, its inhabitants are less likely than wealthy residents to have the funds to relocate nearby, especially if home and rental prices increase like they did in Chico, a town near Paradise. “There was this immediate grab of available housing, and people who had good insurance policies just bought up everything that was nice,” says Jacquelyn Chase, a professor at California State University, Chico, who researches economics and fire risk management in rural communities. “Certain landlords responded to that demand by evicting their tenants and selling those homes to fire survivors.” Nearly four years later, Chase says people still couch surf or live in RVs outside a family member’s or friend’s house as the rebuilding of Paradise slogs along.

“There’s every reason to believe that in the next five years, a town in Colorado will be wiped off the map.”

Colorado doesn’t seem prepared to handle the effects of a devastating blaze any better.
“I have yet to see a concrete plan for long-term housing after a severe fire,” Lasky says.
The aftermath of last year’s East Troublesome fire, which displaced hundreds in Grand County, hints at troubles to come. The county was already facing an affordable housing shortage, and when 366 homes burned (106 of which were primary residences), local officials had to lean on the nonprofit Grand Foundation to fund shelter and fulfill other needs for displaced survivors. “We lost roughly 10 percent of our housing, and it’s been a challenge to find another residence for those who were uninsured or underinsured,” says Megan Ledin, the foundation’s executive director. “I can’t even fathom what would have happened if even more of our housing had burned.”

It’s not easy to plan for a disaster that hasn’t happened yet, and that’s why it’s wise to focus on mitigation efforts, says Dan Schroder, the Colorado State University (CSU) Extension director for Summit County. Teams in the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests conducted more prescribed burns this spring than last year to take advantage of rare, wetter-than-usual conditions, and in April, U.S. Representative Joe Neguse of Boulder proposed the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps that would, in part, enhance mitigation efforts. The CSU Extension office even offers grants to help homeowners pay for tree removal and educational resources about updates like replacing wooden shingles with less-flammable asphalt. But Schroder knows there’s still a chance a disaster like the Camp fire could overpower all that preparation. “If that happens,” he says, “I think there will be a lot of people couch surfing.”

This article was originally published in 5280 July 2021.
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.